Monday, January 28, 2019

Searching for grace in a world gone crazy

Whim W'Him company members in Zoe Scofield's "This Mountain"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

I’m sitting in a pew in Seattle’s All Pilgrim’s Church, waiting to celebrate the life of a dear friend’s mother. Two musicians, on piano and cello, play Faure’s “Apres un Reve,” After a Dream, in English.

I feel a bit dreamy as I sit here, because I’m still thinking about a performance I experienced the evening before, Whim W’Him’s “3 X 3,” featuring three strong new works by three choreographers, including WW Artistic Director Olivier Wevers.

For the past several years I’ve been fixated on the connections between what happens for the audience at a live performance and the experience at spiritual gathering such as this. I think both provide insight into our collective humanity; at their best, they offer a glimpse of the divine, however you define that term. Performance happens to be my church, or synagogue.

The connections were hammered home for me at ‘3 X 3,’ particularly by Seattle-based choreographer Zoe Scofield’s new dance “This Mountain (announcing your place in the family of things)."

I spent the past year traipsing after Scofield, following her from her Kawasaki residency at the University of Washington Dance Department to her Princess Grace fellowship residency at Jacob’s Pillow. She and I have talked about grace, about the ephemeral divine, and about the role of live performance. I was particularly eager to see her first creation for Whim W’Him.

“This Mountain” did not disappoint.

The dance was sandwiched between Yin Yue’s provocative, spidery reflection on human connection, “The Most Elusive Hold,” and Wevers’ “Trail of Soles,” a cry for compassion for the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who’ve been forced to leave their home countries for some safer place. Both dances showcase Whim W’Him’s fine performers. I’m always impressed by Liane Aung; Cameron Birts shone in a solo in "Trail of Soles."
Cameron Birts in Olivier Wevers' "Trail of Soles"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

“This Mountain” is much quieter than either of those two works, and in its quietness, it made a loud statement for me.

The dance began with the dancers clustered at the rear of the stage, framed by two large, black cloth screens. Slowly they begin to move toward the audience, their only accompaniment the rhythmic stamping of their feet, like the pulse of their collective hearts. Each dancer separates from the group, reaching out for something we can’t see; they are reeled back gently to the group’s embrace.

Scofield then creates a series of linear patterns; four dancers face the audience as three others emerge diagonally from the wings, into a large, almost blindingly white rectangle of light. These two groups repeat set series of movements, until dancers break away, one by one, seemingly pursuing the beat of their individual hearts.
Liane Aung and fellow Whim W'Him company members in "This Mountain"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo
I found myself riveted by the movements. In their simple repetitions, they carried me beyond my seat in the Cornish Playhouse.

Back at All Pilgrim’s Church, the pastor takes the microphone to reflect on the concept of hospitality. He defines this as the offering of what he calls ‘relational grace,’ generosity that provides the space to find your true self.

I don’t know if Scofield had this concept in mind as she was working on “This Mountain.” But as the pastor spoke, his words resonated with my experience of her dance. In the program notes, Scofield asks ‘how do people come together? How do we choose to find ourselves and each other in the every day?’ I think part of the answer to that question is for humans to create generous communities that provide both a structured shelter from the world’s cruelties, and the space to embrace our true selves.

In a larger sense, that’s what Whim W’Him Artistic Director Olivier Wevers seeks to provide his audiences. In his curtain speech before the performance, Wevers asked us not only to silence our cell phones, but to turn them off. With a smile, he acknowledged that it might be difficult to disconnect from the siren call of the virtual world. But he, and Scofield, recognize the even greater power of humans sitting together in the same place, sharing the same experience.

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